The United States signed a treaty Friday to protect the undersea wreckage of the Titanic from damage and looting, the State Department said. The wreck's co-discoverer, undersea explorer Robert Ballard, said that he was encouraged by the diplomatic progress, but that much work still remained to be done.
The treaty is the result of negotiations involving the United States, Britain, Canada and France — four of the prominent governmental players in the Titanic's fate. Britain signed the treaty in November, but Canada and France have not yet taken action. The U.S. Congress must still approve implementing legislation as well.
The treaty would set up regulations to control visits to the site, John Turner, assistant secretary of state, said in a telephone conference call. It also designates the Titanic as an international maritime memorial and would set up a system to document items removed from the site and make them available to the public.
“We feel the agreement is an important step in protecting this scientific and historic treasure from harm in the future,” Turner said. It also will allow the people who died to rest in peace, he said.
Details to be decided later
The details and enforcement of the treaty will be decided by the countries. Turner and other officials indicated that federal authorities would have to give their approval for visits to the Titanic by U.S-flag vessels or U.S. citizens, and that the other signatories would set up similar procedures.
"If any party is considering a permit, we would coordinate them with the other parties to the treaty," said Bob Blumberg, a State Department official who deals with ocean policy.
RMS Titanic Inc., the Atlanta company that won exclusive salvage rights to the ship through the federal courts, will support the treaty if it agrees with the legislation Congress works out, said Arnie Geller, the company's president and chief executive.
Geller agreed that the wreck should be protected from looters and thrill-seekers that may damage the ship and artifacts, but he said his salvage rights should remain under the treaty. The for-profit company maintains an extensive collection of Titanic artifacts that are rented out for museum shows.
The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank April 15, 1912, killing 1,500 people. Its wreckage is in international waters 225 miles off the coast of Newfoundland.
The treaty came at the urging of Ballard, who found the Titanic 18 years ago. He revisited the wreck this month to chronicle the damage to the ship, caused both by natural forces and by visitors and salvagers.
Ballard said he could see the imprint of submersible landings on damaged sections of the ship. "So clearly future visitations should not permit contact with the ship," he told reporters.
Ballard said he hoped other countries would sign the treaty — particularly including Russia, because a significant portion of the visits to the Titanic have been conducted with the aid of Russian submersibles.
Blumberg said Russia was not specifically included in the negotiations to date, "but the four parties here all agreed that once the agreement is concluded, we would approach the few other countries that have the technical capability of reaching the Titanic to try to get them to join."
Even though the enforcement measures had not yet been spelled out, Ballard said the mere existence of the treaty would serve to curb undesirable operations at the Titanic, since virtually all submersible visits were facilitated by civil servants. He was concerned, however, about remotely operated vehicles — "a pervasive technology that's beyond the control of governments."
"I'm encouraged now to see the momentum picking up, and I think several things would need to go on before I could call the Titanic 'safe,' but it's absolutely the right thing to do," Ballard said.
In the future, Ballard said, underwater video systems and robotic sentries could provide a high-tech method of monitoring the wreck for potentially harmful visitors. Ballard said he would not favor ruling out visits to the Titanic entirely — only those operations that risk doing further damage to the decaying wreck.
"It's like the Arizona [Memorial] at Pearl Harbor. ... It's like going to Gettysburg," he said. "The ground speaks to you when you go to the Titanic."
This report includes information from MSNBC's Alan Boyle and The Associated Press.